Arminius and Questions of Church and State

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In the West we take for granted our freedom of religion. In a context where the State has a measure of government into the affairs of the Church, an individual is not permitted to spout off any notion he or she desires. This ecclesiological method is meant to protect the Church from heretics and schismatics. But during Arminius’s time, the Church and State had not yet settled its alleged orthodoxy with regard to the doctrines of election and predestination. Arminius scholar Carl Bangs examines in this brief post the questions of Church and State associated with the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the teachings of Jacob Arminius. Bangs writes the following.

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The theological issues with which Arminius dealt in his Amsterdam writings were abstruse enough in his own time and may seem well-nigh beyond recovery for the modern reader. The final verification of theories about predestination must certainly lie in eternity. Arminius saw that there were practical, pastoral consequences of these theories, to be sure, but one may still ask what larger significance they had in the realm of time and history.

The first decade of the seventeenth century was to see predestination theory merge with matters of grave practical concern in both church and state, and the decade after Arminius’ death in 1609 was to see the whole nation [of Holland] embroiled in a bitter internal hostility over the complex of theological-political questions. The discussion would continue after 1619 and spill over into British theology and politics as well. When Arminius disputed about the exegesis of Romans 7 and 9 and about the predestination of classes and individuals, the other issues were just under the surface. . . .

The ecclesiastical and political dimensions of Arminius’ thinking about grace, sin, and predestination in his Amsterdam years may be indicated by a series of questions, each one leading to the next.

1. Did Arminius’ view conform to the teachings of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism?

2. What authority did these two confessions have in the Dutch Church? What is the relation of confessional authority to scriptural authority?

3. By what synodical structure could authority be given to these formulas?

4. Had there been, in fact, a national synod with authority to adopt the confessions?

5. Could and should a new national synod be called?

6. For what purpose should it be called — to enforce conformity to the confessions? To interpret the confessions? To revise the confessions?

7. By what authority can a national synod be called? By the church alone? By the ruler? By the States General?

8. What is the relation of church to state? Of church to ruler? What is the function of the ruler in the government of the church?

9. What is the doctrine of the church which functions in such decisions?

10. What shall be said about the ecclesiastical, political, and even spiritual status of dissenters from the official or dominant religion?

These are formal questions; materially, they were embedded in the actualities of changing structures of power, the rise of the East Indian trade, the war with Spain, divergent goals and ambitions of the military leader Prince Maurice and the civil leader Oldenbarnevelt [who was to be beheaded days after the Synod of Dort for “treason,” i.e., for aiding the Arminians, who were exiled after the Synod in 1619], and leading personalities among clergy and laity in the church.

Arminius avoided a direct attack on the doctrinal formulas. They dated back to a time when the issues with which he was dealing had not been made fully explicit. Although he seems to show less attachment to the Confession and Catechism than do his opponents, he is unwilling to grant the weight of their (undetermined) authority to the supralapsarians. In later years he spoke to the issue directly. [Read here Arminius’s three Disputations on Scripture. He argued that the authority of Scripture alone, not Creeds or Confessions, are “true in words and true in significations, whether it simply declares any thing, or also promises and threatens; and . . . as a superior, it merits obedience through the credence given to it, when it either commands or prohibits any thing.”1] In Amsterdam he did not [speak directly to the issue], and the task at hand is to review what the formulas said at the crucial, mooted points [which will be the subject of a future post].2

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1 James Arminius, “Disputation I. On the Authority and Certainty of the Sacred Scriptures,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapid: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:80.

2 Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1991), 222-23.